Supporting Children through the Trauma of Gun Violence

According to a 2020 statistical report by the center for disease control, gun shooting is the leading cause of death in the United States resulting in 79% of US murders (Gramlich, 2022). Recently, a Nashville school became a victim of a mass shooting, causing six causalities, including three adults and three nine-year-old innocent children. So many children witnessed this incident and are forced to now live with the memory. Unfortunately, the impact of such incidents is not limited to a specific incident; but rather it impairs the lives of everyone who hears about it or sees footage of the horrendous incident.

Mass shootings lead to psychological ramifications in adults and children. Many people who were not present may experience trauma by vicariously experiencing the tragedy through media exposure. Although adults can communicate their emotions, children still learning how to articulate and express their feelings may find it hard to communicate. According to psychologist Dr. Andrew Zobras, children may express themselves by becoming emotional, acting out frequently, feeling distracted, or not being able to perform well academically. Parents must identify any sign of changes in behavior, personality, or interests in children who have been victims of mass shootings to then be able to support their wellness recovery and trauma healing.

It is essential to ensure that the mental health of all those who directly and indirectly experience a tragedy is prioritized. A few steps to do this include:

  1. Encourage a conversation about the event: Allow them to talk about what they might have seen and what they are thinking about. Encourage them to ask any questions that they may have about the event. Validate their concerns even if you cannot answer their question. Reassure them that they are not alone and that their feelings are valid.
  2. Prioritize their safety: Flashbacks may startle them or make them feel hypervigilant. Ensure they feel safe, as their mind and body may be alert after such events. Welcome suggestions from them directly about how they would feel better. Be more responsive to positive gestures, for example hugs and physical connection to recreate safety.
  3. Avoid victims from obsessively reliving the event: Engaging in indoor and outdoor activities can help redirect the focus of those feeling traumatized. These may include playing games, doing creative work, watching movies, or going on a holiday. Family members can also include relaxation exercises in their routines by reconnecting with nature during a walk or by doing meditation, aerobics, mindfulness techniques etc.
  4. Reduce media exposure: After an event, people may relentlessly read or watch about it to stay updated, find an answer, or be connected to the event. However, this leads to constant reliving and re-triggering of the trauma. One must try to avoid graphic exposure to the event and ensure that news is not played constantly at home as it distresses people who are even unconsciously watching it. If children feel concerned, only allow supervised exposure to the event that focuses on information more than exposure.
  5. Offer support to the victims: Children or adults often feel helpless after such events. Family can participate in support programs, donations, or charity drives. This will allow you to feel like you are contributing to reducing the pain, helping those around you recover, and that you are not powerless. It can also give a sense of control during a dehumanizing and traumatizing event. Children can be encouraged to collect the donations, pack, and distribute them to the victims as a form of collective healing.
  6. Maintain a routine: Such events create a sense of uncertainty or unpredictability. However, by having a schedule people often feel a sense of control to reassure them that not everything has changed and aspects of life can feel familiar and “back to normal” again.
  7. Grieving a loss: Watching someone you know in pain or grieving the loss of a loved one is never easy for anyone of any age group. For children, it becomes more challenging as they might be exposed to death or physical impairment for the first time. Help them understand that the event had nothing to do with them. Let them lead the conversation to avoid over and/or under-sharing. Memorialize the person who suffered together so the child can express themself with you instead of dealing with it alone.
  8. Allow them to take a break: Understand that they may not be interested or motivated to participate in household or school activities like before; they may feel exhausted, make more mistakes, or get easily distracted. Let them know that it is okay and encourage them to take the time needed to process their grief.
  9. Creative expression: Provide them with a creative medium to express troubling emotions, whether it is through colors, cooking, or by doing collaborative DIY activities.
  10. Work towards desensitization of the traumatizing place: Slowly help them overcome the trauma and reconnect with the positive memories associated with the location. It is important to attune to your intuition on the timing of this as doing it too soon can re-trigger trauma symptoms.
  11. Extra support at bedtime: Trauma symptoms tend to manifest more at night when people are preparing for bed time. Spend more time with children before they go to sleep to reassure them of your presence and the safety of your home; you can read stories until they sleep so they can live in the imagination of the story instead of thinking of the traumatic event.If there is a need, make alternative bedtime arrangements. Allow them to sleep with you temporarily if this attunes to their fear at night and supports healthy sleep patterns as sleep is essential for wellness recovery.
  12. Track physical symptoms: A lot of times, trauma expresses through somatic concerns. The body may try to communicate through body pain, stomach problems, etc.Use these as an indicator of when the trauma has resurfaced again and attune as needed.
  13. Understand emotional numbness: People may initially appear fine and seem like they are handling things well. However, not reacting to an adverse event may be a sign of denial. Instead of forcing them to change their coping mechanism, realize that they may need you to help them overcome the negative emotions once they are able to process it themselves.
  14. Recognize when extra support is needed: If you feel that your loved one is continuing to struggle with their mental health after a tragedy, for example if they lose interest in everything, have changes in their pattern of sleep and appetite, want to be alone, are acting out more frequently, or may have regressed to a previous age, prioritize connecting them with a professional who would be able to attune to their mental health and trauma healing journey. You can also contact us at https://serengetiwellness.comm/. We prioritize your ease and comfort and provide virtual therapy sessions.

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